Centuries-old diet tips from indigenous Sámi
If you’re vegetarian, you may want to skip this essay…
I am not a licensed dietician nor am I recommending the last fad diet. While reindeer have been such a strong symbol of the Sámi for hundreds of years and remain an integral base of their diet, it is by no means the sole defining symbol of this richly complex indigenous group of people who I have been fortunate enough to spend some time with.
The SÃ¡mi Today
There are roughly 70,000 indigenous Sami people who live in the Arctic and subarctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola peninsula (collectively known as the SÃ¡pmi region). 20,000 of them live in Swedish Lapland.
While on assignment at the 400+ year old Jokkmokk SÃ¡mi Festival (whose 2011 theme happened to be "Slow Food"), I feasted on reindeer meat prepared in at least 10 different ways â similar to the way Bubba rattled off 21 shrimp recipes to Forrest Gump. More importantly, I got beneath the culture to fully understand why it's such an important element of the SÃ¡mi diet.
For centuries, SÃ¡mi nomads depended on reindeer for their daily sustenance because every single part of the animal can be used â meat and fat for cooking, fur and skin for clothing, horns for knives, weapons, and tools, and much more. The reindeer's protein and fat are essential for thriving through cold winters.
While much of their nomadic lifestyle has changed with the times, reindeer meat (along with potatoes) remain part of the SÃ¡mi daily diet. Reindeer meat is lean. Its fat is as good as olive oil, has the same combination of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, and is often used instead of butter and olive oil.
Greta Huuva, SÃ¡mi Food Ambassador
While in Jokkmokk I met and interviewed 61-year old Greta Huuva, who was appointed SÃ¡mi Food Ambassador by the Swedish Ministry of Agriculture, which plans on spotlighting regional foods from Sweden on a global stage as part of the Nordic Slow Food movement.
Greta runs Restaurang Samernas (The SÃ¡mi's Restaurant) in Viddernas Hus along with her family in collaboration with the SÃ¡mi Education Center in Jokkmokk. The kitchen serves seasonal foods such as RenspÃ¥n - torkat renkÃ¶tt och varmrÃ¶kt rentunga (dried reindeer meat and smoked reindeer tongue).
Here, a soup of traditional reindeer meat and bones with dumplings is usually a main dish as opposed to a starter.
Pieces of kams - chunks of curdled reindeer blood - can be added to the reindeer and dumpling soup above for extra flavoring.
"My husband said he wished we had something green to eat," shared Greta Huuva. "Oh not now, I need the fat for the winter. Maybe in the summer, I can have something green." Very few native vegetables grow locally in the Arctic regions of Sweden, and the SÃ¡mi eat as close to nature and their environment as possible. Meaning, they'd rather incorporate local beets, roots, potatoes, and herbs into their diet than import broccoli. Here, a man pours himself a bowl of Borstj - red beet soup.
Antioxidant-rich berries such as lingonberry, cloudberry, and the elusive yet delicious Ã kerbÃ¤r (Arctic raspberry - Rubus arcticus) are local to the region, and are used to garnish dishes or in preservatives and jams.
Greta, who is a medicine woman, uses the angelica herb's roots and seeds for cooking. Its stalk can be used for medicinal purposes, and its mildly sweet young stems used for candy. Around 300-400 years ago it wasn't uncommon to see older SÃ¡mi folk chewing angelica root, which is said to boost the immune system and protect locals from diseases and bacteria brought in by foreigners visiting the annual Jokkmokk market.
The SÃ¡mi Slow Food Philosophy
From what I gathered while spending time with the SÃ¡mi, their indigenous food philosophy seems rather straightforward - eat from your surroundings (including animal fat) and consciously respect it. For them, this means making sure reindeer have been properly taken care of, moose have been free to roam around the forest, fish have been living in clean water, and the people who tend to these get what they need.